An exiled Princess
Sophia Duleep Singh was born on 8 August 1876 as the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, and Bamba Müller. Because of her father’s exile, Sophias was born in England. Her father was a favourite of Queen Victoria, and he was frequently invited by her. Sophia was part of a large family and had five surviving full siblings. Her mother wrote after her birth, “the baby is a dear little pet… She is a healthy little thing, you will be glad to hear that I have been able to nurse her.”1 Queen Victoria acted as her godmother.
During Sophia’s earliest years, her father, who had tried to turn their home Elveden Hall into one of Britain’s grandest estates, was heading for financial disaster. Her father responded to the government’s demands by going on a shopping spree and demanding the return of the family jewels. Due to her age, Sophia was protected from the worst tensions. At the age of 10, her father attempted to return with the family to India, but they were turned away. Once back in England, her father abandoned the family, plunging her mother in deep despair. Luckily, Sophia had her godmother, Queen Victoria, who often sent her gifts. In addition, a new governess and tutors were employed for the children. In September 1887, Sophia became ill with typhoid fever, the very disease that had killed Queen Victoria’s husband. Queen Victoria sent her own physician to care for Sophia, but the circumstances had already taken an unexpected turn. Sophia’s mother had sent everyone away and cared for her daughter all night by herself. When the physician arrived the following morning, Sophia was sleeping peacefully – her fever broken sometime during the night – but her mother lay dead beside her on the floor. Her mother had suffered acute renal failure brought on by an acute case of diabetes, made worse by her drinking. Queen Victoria wrote to her daughter Beatrice, “The poor Maharani died of all the worries she went through and his desertion of her.”2
Her father did not attend her mother’s funeral; he was too busy with his mistress who was now six months pregnant. Her two elder brother returned to their studies after the funeral, but Sopha and her three remaining siblings went to live with Arthur Oliphant, chosen by Quen Victoria, who had some experience in civil service in India. Sophia was sent to a nearby girls’ day school. Her two elder sisters were sent to a university, while her younger brother went to a boarding school. Despite their separation, the siblings wrote to each other often. Two half-sisters were born to Sophia’s father and his mistress and later wife, Ada. Just a few years, after suffering several strokes, her father attempted a rapprochement with Queen Victoria. His left side was paralysed, and he could barely speak – he wanted to come home. Then tragedy struck, Sophia’s younger brother Edward caught pneumonia and deteriorated quickly. Their father, who was also very ill by then, managed to find the strength to travel to England but soon he was too ill to remain by the boy’s bedside. Edward died on 1 May 1893, a week after his father had returned to Paris. Their father followed Edward in death just six months later. He was buried next to Bamba and Edward.
A young woman
During these sad times, Sophia had grown into a young woman. She had thrown herself into her studies, and she was proud of her musical abilities. After completing her education, Sophia and her sisters travelled to Europe for a Grand Tour. The tour left her with an appetite for more adventures. Upon her return to England, Sophia was given a residence at Hampton Court, Faraday House. Now, all that was needed was her official debut into society, but Sophia was disappointed when she and her sisters – born Princesses – were relegated to entering behind Duchesses. Despite this, the day was a success.
In 1895, Sophia purchased a bicycle, which soon became a symbol for the emancipation of women. The suffragette Susan B. Anthony wrote, “the bicycle had done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”3 The Princess soon became a poster girl for the bicycle movement, and she equipped it with the latest accessories. She also picked up an unhealthier habit – smoking. Her house also became filled with dogs, she particularly liked the working breeds, and she even joined dog shows. In 1901, Queen Victoria passed away, and if the loss affected her, Sophia did not show it.
Sophia and her sisters travelled to India to honour the new Emperor of India, King Edward VII. Edward did not go in person and delegated the honour to his brother The Duke of Connaught. During her trip, Sophia tried to get a feel for her homeland and was more successful than her sisters, who could not stand the heat. Sophia decided to return home to England after nine months in India. She had seen extreme poverty in India and returned to England a more serious woman. She felt a profound need to be useful. She once again returned to India in late 1906 to be with her sister Bamba, who had been expelled from college after the medical classes for women were unexpectedly cancelled. India was in a political turmoil, and the sisters ended up caught in between. Sophia was being influenced the Indian nationalism to the concern of the British.
In 1908, Sophia’s path crossed with Una Dugdale, a prominent member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Sophia signed up with the WSPU that very afternoon, pledging her commitment to women’s rights. By 1909, she was finding her way in the women’s movement, and she signed up as a tax resister. Meanwhile, suffragettes interrupted speeches, threw nails under tires and the police often responded violently. Arrested suffragettes who refused food were often force-fed, the process leaving them broken. In 1910, King Edward VII died and was succeeded by King George V, who had little sympathy for the Princesses.4